Fine dining Italian food in Sydney is as rich and varied as the regions in Italy many of these chefs hail from. We celebrate the cucina of Lombardy, Sardinia, Naples, Abruzzo and everything beyond and between with equal alacrity. And because it's Sydney, we're likely to serve it with killer views (Luxury yachts! Perfect surf! Bikinis, sometimes!) and outstanding Australian produce. It's the best type of fusion. Our Italian chefs are as much a part of the culinary landscape as the food they put on the plate. Names such as Armando Percuoco, Alessandro Pavoni and Giovanni Pilu are as familiar to food-loving Sydneysiders as tagliatelle, fettuccine and arrosticini. Everything we have, we owe to their spaghetti.
Ajo Italian Restaurant
What a difference a new fit-out and change of name makes. With contemporary art on the walls, soft banquettes and ticking-covered cushions, the smart designer vibe is better attuned to chef Daniel Mulligan's smartly designed Sardinian menu. Mulligan's 'risotto' of Sardinian fregola with Queensland spanner crab thrills with its ultra-fresh crab meat. Carnivores are strangely bewitched by a vegetarian dish of pumpkin culurgiones (a type of Sardinian ravioli) with confit leek, hazelnuts, burnt butter and sage. Mirto-infused cherries offer intelligent balance to finish an outstanding meal.
91 Evans Street, Rozelle, 9810 1323
Every city needs a fine, old-school Italian restaurant. This is Sydney's. It's still a thrill to cross the well-worn threshold knowing that a special night - even without the occasion - will unfold. Try, if you can, to eschew the justifiably famous truffled egg fettuccine for other pastas like fazzoletti strewn with fresh vongole, calamari and prawns bound with cream and shallots. A shared pasta will allow room for a milky young fillet of veal crumbed and rolled with spinach, nutmeg and parmesan. Desserts elegantly deconstruct tradition with the likes of a nougat semifreddo on a pistachio-scented cream.
108 Boundary Street, Paddington, 9360 6729
Icebergs Dining Room and Bar
Now in its early teens, chef Monty Koludrovic is revving up the Italian kitchen to Maurice Terzini's brief of "flavours my mother would recognise but food she would never cook". Soft linguine is coated with fresh tomato, crab and sorrel; or rosy pink carpaccio of tuna comes with pickled cucumber, puffed rice and peppery nasturtium leaves. And oh, wow – the 'modern pavlova' is sensational, a huge iceberg of soft and crisp meringue (it's possible) with a heart of pink passionfruit granita and strawberry sorbet.
1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach, 9365 9000
Lucio's Italian Restaurant
Lucio's isn't about pushing boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries. It's about serving great pasta and protein for the sake of the customer. Fine tagliolini with flecks of blue swimmer crab in a light tomato sauce was a signature here when Fraser was PM and it continues to shine with bitey green noodles and fleshy, fresh crustacean. The service is old-world excellent, the artwork still tetrised to capacity, and the outdoor ashtray could gossip tales of Sydney's elite for the ages.
47 Windsor Street, Paddington, 02 9380 5996
Ormeggio at the Spit
It's a bit of a no-brainer, really. Take a smart, creative Lombardian chef, stick him in a restaurant on the water and tell him to go nuts with the menu. That'd be Alessandro Pavoni, for the viewers back home. His menu traces a fine line between modern and traditional flavours and techniques, and it's smart. Really smart. A little snack of whipped airy creme fraiche on a rice crisp and a scattering of chives, say. Check out the agnolotti filled with spit-roast lamb dressed with yoghurt cream, mint oil and sumac spiced crumbs - it takes its cues as much from Italy as the Middle East.
D'Albora Marinas, Spit Road, Mosman, 02 9969 4088
For 15 years, lured by Domain-fringed views of the city, punters have come in their figure-hugging finery. Amazingly, not all the heavy lifting is left to the location. The food has grown more self-assured under chef Richard Ptacnik with service that's both whip-smart and warm. A fermented garlic-infused pasta with bug meat and chilli typifies traditional Italian with a Sydney twist. As does crumbed veal with buffalo mozzarella, semi-dried cherry tomatoes and parmesan crisps.
Area 8, 6 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo, 02 9368 7488
Along with the geometric ceiling, glitzy mosaic columns and floor-to-ceiling water views, perhaps our bright screens are also a nod to the restaurant's inspiration, Italian futurist artist Giacomo Balla. But before we get too carried away by modernity, the swift arrival of fresh house-made breads with olive oil and duck ravioli take us back to Steve Manfredi's rustic Milan. You won't leave hungry with a hearty stack of Yamba prawns topped with shaved fennel, tomato and almond, straight off the grill.
The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont, 02 9657 9129
Pilu at Freshwater
Outside, it's all casual surfers and white-tipped waves; inside, it's comfortably formal, with white-clothed tables. The juxtaposition between the two is delicious - and so is the pork terrine, the meltingly soft suckling pig's head meat sandwiched in chickpea 'focaccia' to eat in the hands. What? Since when did the food at this long-established northern beaches Italian rock the boat like this? Since Giovanni Pilu started working with young gun head chef Matteo Zamboni from Rome's La Pergola, that's when.
End of Moore Road, Freshwater, 02 9938 3331
The Restaurant Pendolino
Wend your way past the opulent boutiques to the top of the historic Strand Arcade and you'll be ushered into this moody, dramatic dining space. Nino Zoccali's menu veers from the crisp and refreshing (a crimson salad of sweet beetroot, mint and a plump knot of burrata) to the robust and deeply flavoured (slow-cooked beef with buckwheat ragu). For a mouthful of slow-warming heat, the glossy strands of house-made bucatini with black tomato, cuttlefish ink and "crumbled" prawn is utter comfort in a bowl.
Level 2, The Strand Arcade, 412-414 George Street, Sydney, 02 9231 6117
Spilling out into the Ivy Pool Club – a Vegas-style stretch of water fringed with little bars and beautiful people – the airy room is very Merivale: bright yellows, blonde wooden chairs and spurts of green leaves. And yet it feels like nonna's house here. That comes down to chef David Lovett, who may not look like a greying signora, but sure cooks like one. Lovett's spaghettini with cherry tomatoes, chilli, garlic, basil – ramp it up to an almost-puttanesca with Ortiz anchovies, capers and pillowy tuna belly – is a must for lovers of comfort food.
Level 4, 200 George Street, Sydney, 02 9240 3000